Do you know what to do when an elderly relative is refusing to eat?

Following a visit to their home, you may have noticed that your elderly relative has started to lose weight, or that their fridge is looking uncharacteristically empty, maybe there is not much in the cupboards either. These all ring alarm bells, telling you that perhaps they are not eating, or they are sick. There are several reasons this might happen, and it is more common than you might realise. This article aims to help you to understand the reasons, as well as helping you know what to do when an elderly relative is refusing to eat.

Obstacles to eating

It may be that there are valid reasons that your elderly relative is not eating, rather than actually refusing to eat. You will need to do a bit of detective work to find out. Always remember that your approach needs to be sensitive, you need to help your elderly relative, allowing them to retain in control of their life and their choices. Asking questions and trying to understand why this is happening is a wise approach; working together, rather than it feeling like you are taking over.

There’s no food in the house

There could be a few reasons for this, such as:

  • During winter and after it’s been snowing or the roads are icy, your elderly relative may be fearful of slipping over. This can also be a concern in Autumn when there are wet leaves on the ground.
  • Your relative is feeling low on energy, perhaps they are not getting enough sleep; It’s a possibility that they could be in pain or are having problems with having to get up to the toilet frequently.
  • Your relative is having trouble with mobility, perhaps they are finding it harder to walk, or are tiring easily.
  • Carrying bags might be an issue for them, or perhaps they feel overwhelmed with what they need to buy and have been delaying the shopping.
  • Perhaps they are experiencing financial issues, or are worried about their finances.
  • They may have dental problems that need taking care of.
User friendly kitchen

It might be that they are not able to make food for themselves as much as they used to. In this case, it could be that standing up for too long is causing the problem. You could help by purchasing a bar stool, one that they are able to sit up on easily, and at a height where they are able to prepare and cook food in the kitchen.

Your relative may be struggling to open jars, or packets, lift pans, and use a tin opener, this is a common issue due to declining strength in older people. You can purchase gadgets to help with these things, also helping them to retain their independence for longer.

Ask questions

Ask your relative questions, such as asking how their overall health is, and when they last went shopping, as well as if they would like some help with it. Say that you have noticed that the cupboards and fridge are emptier than usual, ask what they are eating. It may be that they are using a meals delivery service. Always approach with questions rather than making any assumptions.

Once you have determined the reason, and you are not satisfied that there is any just cause for the lack of food in the house, you may then start to wonder if they are refusing to eat.


If your elderly relative has lost weight and/or is refusing to eat, you should check any medications they are taking. Often medication can affect appetite, it is important to discover if this is the case or not by booking in a medication review with their GP.


If your relative has dementia, there will be various reasons they might not be eating, or are refusing to eat, including:

  • Perceptions of the food in front of them
  • Unable to use cutlery
  • Swallowing problems
  • Forgetting mealtimes
  • Distractions or lighting and noise

There are ways that you can make mealtimes easier for people with dementia, it’s often a matter of finding out where the issue is.


Depression is common in the elderly and this can cause a complete lack of will to eat, let alone prepare and cook meals.

It might help for their food intake to be monitored to ensure they are at least getting some nutrition. Eating small amounts of food that hold longer lasting energy and is easy to prepare can help. Ensure there are such food choices in the cupboard and keeping them company while they eat can also be of great help, especially if they are also feeling lonely.

Reduced appetite

Older people naturally will have a reduced appetite and it is advisable for them to eat smaller meals and eat more often. Smaller and nutritious meals can be prepared at the start of the day so they can graze easily, rather than having to try and eat a large meal which can be over whelming.

All through your life, your tastes tend to change, and when you get older your taste buds can also become weaker. Perhaps your relative needs some inspiration and help on what to eat and how to make things tastier.

Sudden weight loss

Weight loss can be common in older people, however it is always best to check for any underlying medical conditions too, especially if it a concerning and sudden weight loss.